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Better to be tested, not positive than not tested, positive

Some cancer screenings can bring false positive results

POCATELLO, Idaho - Getting screened for cancer can save your life, but some of the methods used are controversial, as they can provide high false-positive results.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation says the risk of false-positive results with mammograms is 61 percent.  While that may sound like they do more bad than good, the American Cancer Society said over half of the 580,000 people who died from cancer could have survived, but didn't get screened early enough.  

Dr. Steve Larsen, radiologist with Portneuf Medical Center said sometimes figuring out whether a patient has breast cancer is very tough, even after a screening.  Anything from a technical glitch to the patient having dense tissue in the breast can complicate results.

"Every screening test has false-positives," Larsen said, "but the screening tests we're doing have also been shown to have benefits and save lives."

Larsen said because there has been so much controversy over which test to use, the U.S. government closely regulates their recommendation that out of every 100 screening mammograms, somewhere between five and 15 percent of them be called back for additional views because of abnormalities.

"Now, the majority of those will turn out to be nothing and turn out to be benign," Larsen said.  "There are those that require additional tests like a biopsy or a follow up."

Larsen said they want to make sure you get the treatment you need, so if your test results do come back with abnormalities, they will schedule follow-up tests to find out exactly what's going on.

"Cancer is detected in one out of every eight women," Larsen said.  "That's a significant number."

That's why Larsen said it's important to do the screenings and any follow-up exams. He said it's better to be screened and go through the inconvenience and emotions of abnormalities that turn out to be false, rather than not get screened and have it be too late if it is discovered.

Larsen also discussed the psychological effect a diagnosis or abnormality can have on a patient.  The University of Copenhagen in Denmark conducted a study that showed women who received false-positive mammograms experienced the same emotions as those women who tested positive for breast cancer.

Larsen also said there are a lot of other factors to take into considerations when looking at test results, like age and family history.  It's also important to think about screening for other cancers, like colorectal cancer, which the American Cancer Society says is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined.  It's expected to kill 50,000 people this year.

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